Friday, March 13, 2009

A. Lincoln Created in Our Own Image

Andrew Ferguson--whose book Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America (2007) is a fun read--critically reviews Ronald C. White Jr.'s new book, A. Lincoln: A Biography (2009) in the latest issue of The Weekly Standard.

I'm about a third of the way through White's 800+ page tome and have enjoyed it thus far. But Ferguson makes some telling observations:
White collects his Lincoln materials and presents a flattering self-portrait of the modern American liberal. It's there in the language he uses. You can take the professor out of San Francisco, but you can't take San Francisco out of the professor. His natural idiom is the pillowy jargon of therapeutic California, where no man will say something when he can "share" it, or consult colleagues when he can "visit with them," or recover from a personal tragedy without "opening up a new chapter in his life."

The Peace Democrats who opposed Lincoln want to "give peace a chance." Soldiers, all of whom were men, had "spouses" rather than wives. Debates, even national debates, are "conversations." Lincoln himself is a "newspaper junkie." Instead of making a conciliatory gesture, or sending a letter, or asking somebody's opinion, or flirting, Lincoln "reaches out." His sublime writings are one more example of his excellent "communication skills."

The cant phrases of today look all the sillier when they're injected into the life of a 19th-century politician. But White is undeterred. His main task is to shave off whatever rough edges might complicate his view of Lincoln as the kind of guy Mario Cuomo would love. A. Lincoln: A Biography is a case study in how historians have managed to make Lincoln a contemporary figure, someone more to their taste. At the risk of pedantry it's worth going through some examples.

You can read the whole thing here.